Power to the B-boys
Ask any ballet dancer: There’s a ritual to putting away a pair of pointe shoes. First, push the soft satin of the heel forward toward the hard, boxy toe. Fold the sides of the shoe over the flattened heel. Then, take the two long ribbons -- used to secure the shoe at the ankle -- and wrap them around and around the folded satin.
Then shove the tidy, pale pink package into the chaos of stuff you always tote around in your dance bag.
In her 20 years as a ballet student and as a former Pasadena Ballet dancer, Marissa Labog, 26, has performed the drill a thousand times. But tonight, the battered pink shoes in her hands aren’t for “Swan Lake.” Tonight, at the monthly Carnival Choreographers Ball at the Key Club on Sunset Strip, she’ll be breakin’ -- in pointe shoes.
You can call it break dancing, but dancers will laugh at you. It’s just breaking -- a bone-jarring subset of a larger world called hip-hop, or freestyle, dance. Breaking -- aptly named, considering the risk to cranium, neck and wrist -- only applies to the most gymnastic, gravity-defying moves. Hands serve the traditional purpose of feet. Except for Labog’s dance experiment, no pointe shoes, just Adidas and Pumas, and maybe taped wrists, kneepads or helmets. A thick knit cap is not a fashion statement but a necessity if you plan to dance on your head.
Hip-hop is now standard fare in music videos, pop music tours and youth-oriented TV commercials for candy-colored cell phones and low-as-you-can-go-rise jeans. It’s pop culture not subculture. It’s also big business: As they do for star athletes, clothing and athletic shoe manufacturers provide free stuff or even pay sponsorship fees to high-profile dancers.
Wade Robson, 20, was choreographing tours, videos and commercials for Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Janet Jackson and other artists while still in his teens. He looks at the dance today and says the moves just keep getting more, well, more. “There are some people out there doing insane stuff,” he says. “It’s like X-sports, or extreme sports -- it’s X-dance.
“In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s there were certain dances that everybody knew; that rarely happens now,” Robson adds. “There are so many types of dance now, each little clique has a little language of its own; it’s like all these little tribes.”
Even though it’s gone commercial, there are still a few places in Los Angeles where you can see what Bill Prudich, co-owner and director of Edge Performing Arts Center, calls “it” -- live hip-hop dance and breaking in its pure form. Freestyle that’s really free style, without the inhibiting requirements of selling a product.
One of those places is the Key Club’s monthly Carnival, a showcase usually presented on the last Wednesday of the month. It offers a creative alternative for choreographers and dancers who make their living in commercials, videos or rock tours, or those with less-visible gigs at private parties, special events or bar mitzvahs.
The dance movements called “locking” and “popping” -- precursors to breaking, or “B-boying” -- were born in the 1970s, on the streets of L.A. and Fresno. This bit of dance history comes courtesy of SugaPop, 34, longtime member of one of the seminal dance groups, the Electric Boogaloos. In recent decades, hip-hop has moved into the dance studio. Many local dance schools, including Hollywood’s Edge and North Hollywood’s Millennium Dance Complex, teach hip-hop alongside ballet, modern and jazz.
Although dancers interested in Broadway musicals might best hop a plane for New York City, “this is the commercial capital of the world,” says Carnival executive director Carey Ysais. “Every year there’s another 500 or 600 dancers coming here, trying to make it. And there’s really only 100, 150 who are working at any given time -- maybe. There are always auditions, but choreographers are always working with the same people.”
Those people, including Labog, are hungry for a showcase like Carnival. Seated on the wood floor before the show, with legs splayed wide in a position of comfortable relaxation for a dancer, pain for an ordinary person, ballerina-breaker Labog is waiting for her chance to take the stage to run through her number, “One Step Ahead,” in which she will break the rules of breakin’ by executing hip-hop moves en pointe.
In the hip-hop world, Labog is known as “Mighty,” even though, size wise, she could be the “Tiny Dancer” immortalized in the old Elton John song. She radiates enough energy to justify her hip-hop name.
“I want to really show that you can do everything, put two styles together,” she says, determination shining in her dark eyes.
Carnival doesn’t officially begin until 11 p.m., but the line begins snaking down the block as early as 8. There are other Los Angeles venues where dancers gather, but most are sporadic and few are as popular.
Choreographers and performers do Carnival for free. For once, it’s not about the money, says Ysais, who produces the 3-year-old event for DMK World with partners Kimo Keoke and Paulette Azizian. It’s about the love.
Well, half about the love -- and half about the audition. While participants celebrate the chance to try something different -- maybe outrageous -- onstage, they remain aware that casting agents, or maybe a pop star looking for someone to bust a move in the next world tour, may be prowling out there in the dark.
“Soul Train” dancers Luciana Bell (professional name: Shine) and Sha’llah Brewton, both performing in tonight’s Carnival with the Arizona dance troupe Footklan, admit they come here for the exposure. For these two aspiring dancer-model-actors, being seen is more important than chatting with the press. “I’m just trying to dance,” Bell scolds gently, escaping an attempted interview to reenter the throbbing crowd.
Though open to the public, Carnival remains mostly a by-dancers, for-dancers kind of event, publicized by word-of-mouth. “The underground level is so immense, we regularly have talent here from Japan, Las Vegas, Europe, everywhere -- it’s large,” says producer Keoke.
“They don’t have to be as safe as commercial producers or directors expect them to be. Sometimes, that lends itself to being edgy or risque or provocative. That’s a good thing.
“We see circus people, people topless, people working with fire or water or pushing the boundaries physically, emotionally, theatrically,” Keoke adds. “Along with hip-hop, they may toss in some stunts, do some harness work or fly through the air.”
Labog is not the only Carnival dancer who wants to break down barriers between movement styles tonight. Look up, way up; there’s Trey Knight, a former professional roller skater who dances on stilts; there’s acrobat Brandon Sanford, who performs by twisting his body around a billowing piece of white fabric that stretches from ceiling to floor.
And Labog has found a soul mate in Jules Urich, 26, who recently moved here from Philadelphia, where she performed with the hip-hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement. “I’m a breaker,” Urich says proudly. On this night, she plans to fuse breaking with modern dance in “Silent Storm,” performed to the sound of her own voice reading text she has written.
In rehearsal, Urich assumes humanly impossible poses to a persistent throb of words and tribal drumbeats. “I remember having dreams where I was going down a roller coaster hill, where I would be walking and every step would be like walking through quicksand, my tongue would swell, I couldn’t form the words to call for help,” says Urich’s taped voice. “The next thing I knew, I was popping Prozac like Sweetarts.”
The Los Angeles dance scene is a little different from what happens back East, confides Urich. “A lot of it is based on looks more than skill,” she says, ignoring the surrounding host of dancers in Spandex, sportswear or leather.
Perhaps L.A. could be a little grimier. Urich cites this term as one that has recently entered the ever-changing lexicon of hip-hop slang. It means good, like, grimy, really nasty. Urich is on a mission to transcend L.A. glitz. “I want to change where hip-hop is going,” she says. “It’s really very commercial, and I’d like to take it into a new form.”
Labog and Urich, Mighty and Jules, are B-girls, breaker girls, in a testosterone world peopled mostly with B-boys. The ratio is slowly changing -- but Labog recalls teaching a breaking class in which one B-boy, just out of prison, approached her to ask if she had a boyfriend. When she said yes, he responded in surprise: “Oh, your boy lets you come out and break?”
Labog doesn’t meet guys like that at the Key Club. But sometimes they turn up on Monday nights at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, where she teaches breaking to disenfranchised youths through the Hope in Hollywood Organization. Most breakers you run into know about Mondays at St. Stephen’s -- when rap music, not the church choir, blares into the street from the open door. Ricardo “Stuntman” Romo, 25, co-director of the dance program with Labog, was in and out of trouble, in and out of prison, before he began to focus on dance.
Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, 26, has taught at Edge and is also a regular here. “We have an informal community; we all help each other,” he observes during a break from teaching a young woman in a red hat to spin on her shoulders on the floor, legs splayed in a V that rotates in the air. This is called, aptly, “floor work”; dancing while standing up is “top-rock.”
“We sort of look alike, with our colorful dress and our attitude; there are all these little signs that the police tend to watch for,” Lyons offers with a crooked smile. “I’ve been kicked out of every park in Burbank.”
Michael Ko, 20, a Pierce College business student from Woodland Hills, hardly fits the “troubled youth” stereotype, but he comes here all the time. “It’s just a hobby; it makes me focus on myself,” he says. “It’s a true party thing. It’s clean party -- no drugs. Just music and water.”
Don’t ask Steven DeLeon, 23-year-old manager of Workmens hip-hop clothing store on Melrose, if he can get you a copy of the “Freestyle Session 7" double video. Four people have already called today and made it only as far as the waiting list. Also hot are “Battle of the Year 2000" and “Battle of the Year 2001,” tapes of a major annual competition held in various cities around the world.
Workmens is arguably L.A.'s primary clearinghouse for videos of the numerous hip-hop battles, or competitions, that happen all over the world.
Most people don’t know the videos exist, but dancers wait eagerly for the latest release to use as choreographic inspiration.
Workmens is sold out of the brand-new “Freestyle Session 7" -- featuring more than 29 dance “crews,” including Fiends 4 Rhythm, Battle Monkeys and Grimeez -- but you can get either of the two videos playing concurrently on the 10 video screens in the store: “City vs. City: Chicago’s 2nd Annual B-Boy Competition” and “Style Elements B-Boy Remind.” Or any of dozens of others.
Although Carnival offers an alternative to more commercial dance fare, some call the Key Club event mainstream compared to what turns up on these videos, circulated through stores catering to the hip-hop community, and available through such hip-hop Web sites as freestylesession.com and bboying.com.
And there is even a sublevel below this underground, says Brendan Filuk, a dancer and choreographer’s agent with the 2-year-old BLOC agency.
At some smaller stores, he says, dancers exchange videos of battles that take place in alleyways and basements, along the lines of home movies. He adds that many young dancers are eager to study the work of the old masters of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“I’ve seen those tapes,” Filuk says. “That is a real subculture within the culture. A lot of dancers watch those tapes religiously. It’s like a trumpeter watching tapes of Dizzy Gillespie. They’ll sit and watch those tapes all night. To be honest, those dancers tend not to be your mainstream, working dancers. They just love dancing.”
Hip-hop: and how
The hip-hop dance community spreads the word largely by informal methods such as word-of-mouth, fliers, postcards and posted notices (check the bulletin boards at dance schools, hip-hop clothing stores, or youth groups with dance programs). Here are a few places to get started:
Carnival Choreographer’s Ball
Where: Key Club, 9039 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood,
(310) 274-5800 or dmkworld.com.
When: Usually the last Wednesday of the month, performance
11 p.m.-2 a.m.; due to holidays
the next Carnivals are Dec. 4
and Jan. 29.
What: Hip-hop clothing and videos.
Where: 7562 Melrose Ave.,
Los Angeles, (323) 782-0985.
Edge Performing Arts Center
Where: 1020 N. Cole Ave.,
4th floor, Hollywood,
(323) 962-7733 or edgepac.com
Millennium Dance Complex
Where: 5113 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 753-5081.
Web sites: freestylesession.com, bboying.com.
Video on the Web
Watch one hip-hop group, the Rock Steady crew, visit Workmens on Melrose and see how the free-form dance style is reaching youths. Go to www.calendarlive.com/hiphop.